In the last month, many Westerners watched in horror as Uganda, and then Nigeria, enacted laws that are brutally repressive to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
The fate of a bill passed by the Ugandan parliament remains uncertain after President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign it, but news reports from Nigeria indicate that there have been mass arrests of gay men following President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing of the National Assembly’s anti-gay bill.
World leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have expressed their dismay. Many Christian leaders around the world, regrettably, have been largely unwilling to criticize Christian leaders in Africa who cheered the passage of these punitive laws.
The Anglican primates of Uganda and Nigeria enthusiastically support anti-gay legislation in their countries. I, like them, am a member of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide body of more than 80 million Christians. I am troubled and saddened that fellow Anglicans could support legislation that fails to recognize that every human being is created in the image of God.
Western Christians cannot ignore the homophobia of these church officials or the peril in which they place Ugandan and Nigerian LGBT people. The legacy of colonial-era Christian missionaries and infusions of cash from modern-day American conservatives have helped to create it.
Twice in the last three years, I have traveled to Africa to meet with biblical scholars, grass-roots activists, and church officials at consultations about the Bible and sexuality. These brave leaders have taught me that there is no getting around the Bible when searching for the origins of the homophobia that is rampant in many African cultures. What’s more, Europeans and North Americans bear much of the historical responsibility for this sad state of affairs. As Zimbabwean biblical scholar Masiiwa Ragies Gunda has written, it is “far-fetched to look beyond the activities of Western missionaries” when considering the role of the Bible in Africa.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western missionaries, fired with fervor to save souls in what they called “the dark continent,” sought to translate the Bible into indigenous languages so that converts could hear the Word of God, with special emphasis on the passages that urged hard work and submission. We know the result: as former President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya reportedly said, “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
Along with the Bible, Western missionaries also bequeathed to Africans a literal understanding of how to read it. Today, that literalism continues to encourage fundamentalist interpretation of difficult passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although many scholars in Africa now understand that these passages are properly read in context of the ancient cultures that produced them, people can still fuel grass-roots homophobia by appropriating a handful of biblical texts that seem to vilify gay people.
As a result, Christians who publicly advocate for more historically accurate biblical interpretations and more generous treatment of LGBT people can find themselves jobless, homeless, and in grave danger.
The situation is not hopeless. Across Christian Africa, tools like contextual Bible study, developed in post-apartheid South Africa, provide new ways to read the Bible and what it has to say about sexuality and other central issues in the lives of African Christians. These new readings of old texts encourage Christians to accept LGBT people as God’s children.
Even so, progressive African Christians are fighting an uphill battle. The voices of strident homophobic leaders in Africa have been amplified by large infusions of money from American right-wing culture warriors such as Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., who has bankrolled homophobia on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make common cause between right-wing American Anglican splinter groups and the Anglican churches of Nigeria and Uganda.
Western Christians cannot fix the homophobia that is currently gripping Nigeria, Uganda, or other African countries. We can, however, stand in solidarity with progressive Africans and support their efforts to teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality. When we see human rights abuses, we can speak out. And most of all, we can acknowledge with humility that we bear our share of the responsibility for this tragic legacy of empire and insist on repudiating contemporary efforts to expand its reach.
(The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings is the president of the Episcopal Church’s lay and clergy House of Deputies and is a member of the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council. She is a founding steering committee member of the Chicago Consultation.)